D. Dowd Muska


Wind Power: Picking a Loser

November 27, 2014

Customers are forced to buy its product. Washington showers it with 82 types of subsidies, and state and local governments are nearly as generous. It’s exempt from penalties for the worst environmental damage it causes.

Is there an “industry” more coddled than wind power?

Probably not, but wind’s lobbyists refuse to abandon their campaign to preserve the Production Tax Credit (PTC). The “temporary” federal perk, created in the cornucopia of lousy policies that emerged during the George H.W. Bush administration, has been reauthorized seven times. It doesn’t deserve an eighth.

The PTC’s value is currently $23 per megawatt-hour. No small sum, notes the Institute for Energy Research (IER) in a new analysis, because “prices in wholesale electricity markets typically hover around $50 per megawatt-hour.” The Senate Finance Committee estimates that a two-year extension will cost $13.35 billion. The Institute’s number-crunching finds that the tab is equivalent to “124 million Americans’ average monthly electricity bill,” or “the total tax bill of 4.8 million families with median incomes for a single year.”

The PTC is a uniquely unfair “tax expenditure.” Windy states get the goodies, while their calmer counterparts pay the bills. By region, in 2012, “the Northeast (-$591.8 million) and Southeast (-$559.3 million) were the biggest ‘net payers,’ while the Southwest (+$551.4 million) and Midwest (+$426.9 million) were the most sizable ‘net takers.’” Texas-hating moonbats, take note -- landing in the top slot, the Lone Star State harvested a whopping $394.5 million worth of credits in 2012.

Aside from its priciness, taxpayer “investment” in wind is undesirable due to the energy source’s reliable unreliability. Physicist Howard Hayden Wind observed that it produces “the lowest-quality electricity on the planet.” Welsh ecologist John Etherington noted that “the unpredictability of wind demands the constant availability of conventional generating capacity to provide extra electricity or to balance over-production because electricity has to be consumed instantaneously as it is generated, or generated to satisfy instantaneous demand.”

Transportation is an additional complication. The windiest areas tend to have sparse populations, necessitating the construction of long transmission lines. When turbines are constructed near homes, complaints quickly accumulate. In 2011, The Los Angeles Times chronicled the grumbling of residents close to a wind “farm” in Tehachapi, California. “Once, you could see stars like you wouldn’t believe,” Donna Moran said. “Now, with the lights from the turbines, you can’t even see the night sky.” Noise is a quibble. So is “shadow flicker,” which The Boston Globe described as “a pulse of flashing light and dark.” It afflicts “residents from Newburyport to Falmouth who live literally in the shadow of wind turbines.” Doreen Reilly, of Kingston, told the paper, “You can’t stay in your room. You get a headache. You can’t live your life.”

Wildlife conservation is another reason to scrap government largesse for wind. True environmentalists understand that big turbines are brutal to bats and birds. As Etherington put it, turbines “are so gigantic that, though the rotor appears to be travelling quite slowly, the blade tip velocity of a big machine often exceeds 150 mph.”

The IER’s report quotes a U.S. Geological Survey biologist’s gruesome tale: “In some parts of the country, bat researchers who only rarely catch hoary bats in the wild can now walk beneath turbines at certain wind energy facilities during autumn and find more dead … on the ground in a few weeks than they have caught during their entire careers.” Using a range of 3.1 to 11.7 deaths per megawatt, the IER estimates that wind destroys between 190,000 and 717,116 birds annually. Are operators ever prosecuted for their crimes against wildlife? Of course not. Don’t you know that wind is “green”?

Were it not for the PTC and state requirements that utilities produce or purchase “renewable” power, wind would contribute nothing to the nation’s electricity supply. (Its “performance” would be a dismal as solar.) Yet wind is so wildly impractical, despite more than two decades of heavy subsidization, its status approaches irrelevancy. When the PTC was enacted, just 0.1 percent of U.S. power generation derived from wind. Today, the share is 4.1 percent. That’s far less than coal (39 percent), natural gas (27 percent), and nuclear (19 percent). Even hydropower, in an era of dam removal, soundly bests wind’s output.

Mercurial, costly, and an environmental menace -- if it were desirable for government to involve itself with wind power at all, ideally, politicians would erect obstacles, not bestow benefits. Permanently killing the PTC is a solid first step away from an inefficient and destructive technology. 

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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